words Justin McGuirk
Engineers, heroes and the Queen. The symbolism on these new coins sustains a very particular British mythology.
George Orwell once described patriotism as “devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same”. I wonder what the enduring qualities of Great Britain are. Getting straight to the point, how are those qualities manifested in our coins? Why do we put little pictures on our money, and what do those pictures say about our national identity? Well, firstly, to provide a focus of national pride that is inculcated in our daily transactions, and secondly, really rather little.
Tourists might conclude from a look at our coins that we were a nation of rabid monarchists, but a few minutes at a newsstand would soon disabuse them of that idea. I doubt many of us understand the Latin inscriptions and arcane heraldic insignia that we carry around in our pockets all day – those Tudor roses, couchant lions and ostrich feathers. But I believe they are a source of some comfort. There is a surfeit of pomp and historic grandeur to fall back on should we ever suffer a bout of low national self-esteem (and we have the arrogance of not needing it but knowing that it’s there).
A new set of coins from the royal mint offers a fresh chance to ask ourselves who we are. There are two £2 coins commemorating Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bicentenary, a 50p coin marking the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross and a £5 coin celebrating the Queen’s 80th birthday. Now, the ideas for suitable coin subjects are generated by the marketing department of the Royal Mint (which seeks authorisation from the Treasury, which passes them on to the Chancellor, who gets them signed off by the Queen). And there are clearly certain things deemed more coin worthy than others: anything Victorian (that was our greatest age, after all), anything to do with engineering and, of course, the Queen.
Let’s start with the biggest of the new arrivals: the fiver. This medallion harks back to when a coin was still worth something, which must be back in the days of ducats and doubloons. Who’d have thought you’d be able to pull a single coin from your pocket and buy two pints with it? But then, this is not really about money, it’s about portraiture. Coins are one of the last surviving manifestations of the idealised portrait. One of the advantages of being Queen is that you are mostly known through a hieroglyph: you can pile on extra chins like scoops of ice cream on a cone and your cupro-nickel profile will never know. Vivat Regina!
As for Brunel, well he’s a dead cert: Victorian and an engineer. Here he is in his top hat, munching on a cigar. You’d never know that the great man was only five feet tall (which explains the top hat). Brunel epitomises the British idea of creativity. Art, after all, is dubious stuff, but art combined with technology towards a practical end, that is the stuff of heroes, and that is why in 2135 there will be a £2 coin marking the bicentenary of Norman Foster.
The 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross is most definitely coin worthy, and needs marking because people need to be reminded that it still exists (it only gets awarded once every 49 years, and usually to a dead man) and that, in these troubled times, acts of extraordinary courage might come in handy.
So what, in the end, do our coins say about us? That we are a land of plucky types with a proud monarchic history and a great love of bridge builders. It’s not so bad, really. And it saves us from having to actually look at ourselves, because if we did we might have to melt all the coins down and restamp them with the Big Brother eye.